“Jesus said, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’”
Yes, I know that sermons are supposed to be full of assertions and exhortations—but this sermon is full of questions.
The first question is, what made Julio Diaz do what he did on a certain night last February?
Mr. Diaz, a 31 year old social worker, has a daily routine—every night, after an hour-long subway commute to the Bronx, he gets off one stop early so he can eat at his favorite diner.
But on this particular night, as Mr. Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly deserted platform, he suddenly found himself confronting the unexpected.
This is what happened, in his own words.
“So I get off the train and I’m walking toward the stairs when this young teenager pulls out a knife—he wants my money, so I just give him my wallet and tell him, ‘Here you go.’
As he starts to walk away, I tell him, ‘Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.’
He’s looking at me like, what’s going on here? He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’
And I’m like, if you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me…hey, you’re more than welcome…you can follow me if you want.’
You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help.
So we go into the diner and sit down in my regular booth.
The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi. The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?’ I’m like, No, I just eat here a lot. He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.’ I said, ‘Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?’ ‘Yeah, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way.’
Then I just asked him, what is it you want out of life? He just had almost a sad face. He couldn’t answer me—or he didn’t want to.
The bill came and I tell him, ‘Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ‘cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.’
He didn’t even think about it and returned the wallet. I gave him $20…I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know. When I give him the $20, I ask him to give me something in return. I ask him for the knife and he gives it to me.
Afterwards I’m telling my mother what happened—no mom wants to hear this—and she said, ‘Well, you’re the type of kid if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.’
I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”
The next question is, what made Wesley Autrey, a 50 year old African American construction worker and Navy veteran do what he did?
A reporter described the scene.
“Mr. Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137the Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.
Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.
The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. ‘I had to make a split decision,’ Mr. Autrey said.
So he made one, and leapt.
Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time.
Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease. Mr. Autrey heard onlookers’ screams. ‘We’re O.K. down here,’ he yelled, ‘but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.’ He hard cries of wonder, and applause.
Power was cut, and workers got them out. Mr. Hollopeter, a student at the New York Film Academy, was taken to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. He had only bumps and bruises. The police said it appeared that Mr. Hollopeter had suffered a seizure.
Mr. Autrey refused medical help, because, he said, nothing was wrong. He did visit Mr. Hollopeter in the hospital before heading to his night shift. ‘I don’t feel I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,’ Mr. Autrey said. ‘I did what I felt was right.’
And, of course, his words are just a fumbling attempt to explain what he could never explain, even to himself.
And then we might well ask what made a certain gentleman respond as he did in this incident described by an onlooker.
“The other day on the A train, a large man dressed in a camouflage sweatsuit was being grilled by a woman about not going to church enough.
He suggested that how one acted could be a form of worship, but she continued to berate him for his lack of church attendance.
Just then, a young woman about 30 feet away doubled over and collapsed.
The man in camouflage was the first on his feet to help her. He propped her head with his backpack and sat on the floor to hold her hand while he directed others to alert the conductor.
When the train stopped at 14th Street, the conductor announced that there would be a delay for a sick passenger, and the man’s church friend rushed across the platform to catch a local train.
Meanwhile, he continued to sit with the young woman who turned out to be a cancer patient, holding her hand.
After the police helped her off, the man put on his earphones and returned to his pew in the greater church of New York.”
And what was it that made 23,000 individuals and families who were living in Nazi-occupied countries hide Jewish citizens in their homes, knowing that the slightest slip-up would undoubtedly result in their immediate execution?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
Now admittedly these stories are dramatic and exceptional—but could it be that they shed light on something that is a distinct possibility for every one of us—something that, when it happens to us, although the circumstances may seem completely hum-drum, is indeed exceptional?
Could it be that these stories shed light on something that is a gospel truth for all of us?
What if God is the name of that mysterious reality that in a given moment wells up within us and, miracle of miracles, propels us beyond our usual self-concern and moves us to act boldly and daringly on behalf of our neighbor, even at some considerable risk to ourselves?
What if God is the name of that power, that agency, that, at a certain moment in time, carries us beyond ourselves and inspires us to be more hospitable and respectfully attentive to someone, perhaps even our adversary, than we thought we were capable of?
In August Wilson’s play, “Fences,” the main character, Troy Maxson, originally played by James Earl Jones, is a Chicago garbage man who displays remarkable survival skills—the playwright says this about his intentions—“I think my plays offer (white America) a different way to look at black Americans…in “Fences” they see a garbage man, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
What if God is the name of that force of illumination that suddenly opens our eyes to someone’s complicated, unfathomable humanity, someone we’ve seen but never really looked at, someone who we suddenly realize is as real as we are?
Last year the folk singer Susan Werner put out an album called “The Gospel Truth”—one song contains these words:
When I closed my eyes so I would not see
My Lord did trouble me
When I let things stand that should not be
My Lord did trouble me
When I held my head too high too proud
When I raised my voice too little too loud
When I held myself away and apart
And the tears of my brother didn’t move my heart
My Lord did trouble me
With a word or a sign
With the ringing of the bell in the back of my mind
My Lord did trouble me
Did stir my soul
For to make me human
To make me whole
What if God is the name for the ringing of the bell in the back of our minds that stirs our soul to make us human and to make us whole?
The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner caused quite a stir among traditionalists when he introduced the notion of “the anonymous Christian” who he described as someone who does not profess conventional religious belief but nonetheless exhibits the fruits of the Spirit, grace under pressure.
Maybe we could use the term, “anonymous witnesses,” to describe those who don’t use God language but who manifest the fruits of the Spirit, who demonstrate grace under pressure, who surprise and delight us by leaping beyond their own self concern to act adventurously on behalf of others in ways that they can never explain, who seem to be driven and impelled by that spirit of graciousness we are referring to when we use the word “God.”
As the Rev. Al Carmines once said, “I’ve discovered…that God doesn’t disappear when you don’t talk about him.”
Should we not, as a gathered community of faith, acknowledge, celebrate, and give thanks for these anonymous witnesses who do not say, “Lord, Lord,” but who, without realizing it, bear witness to the kingdom of God and powerfully proclaim to us this unspoken message: “Go and do likewise”?
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio 6/1/08